I discussed Dylan M. Burns’s book Apocalypse of the Alien God, an account of the influential early Gnostic sect called Sethians. Burns’s arguments resonated because of work I have been doing recently on the origins of Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism, and the influence of the sectarian Judaism we know from Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Chronologically, those ideas originated in the late third or early second century BC, while the Qumran community survived until the Jewish Wars of the 60s AD. They thus span the early years of Christianity. Some scholars believe that we can see the legacy of this tradition in the early stages of Mesopotamian Christianity. Other memories survive in Jewish-Christian baptismal sects like the Elchasaites of the second century AD – the “Babylonian Baptists” – and the Dualist Manichaeans of the third. (I stress the “some scholars” as the matter of linkages is far from settled).
Burns likewise traces that sectarian Jewish heritage into the Sethians, and thus the mainstream of what becomes Gnosticism. “Like those of the Jewish-Christian Elchasaites and the Manichaeans, the Sethian tradition appears to have drawn from a common well of Jewish priestly lore glimpsed in the Dead Sea scrolls and Hekhalot literature. It was inspired by Jewish, apocalyptic texts and built a salvation history around multiple descents of the primeval ancestor Seth.”
Repeatedly, he notes parallels between Sethians and Manichaeans, concluding that “some kind of genetic relationship between Sethianism and Manichaeism is all but certain.” Just how and where this connection might have occurred is not obvious, but he plausibly suggests that “the relationship between Sethianism and Manichaeism is best explained by a common background in Syro-Mesopotamian Jewish baptismal groups, [so that] Sethian literature itself is probably a product of such a group, perhaps one like the community of Mani, either belonging to or resembling the Elchasaites.” In fact, says Burns, “All this – baptismal community, Encratism, deep interest in Jewish lore, belief in reincarnation, and a veneration of Jesus as one of many incarnations of the savior – points to a community like the one in which Mani was born and raised.” (Encratism is the profound hostility to the material world that leads believers to eschew meat-eating and sexual activity).
In short, Sethianism “emerged from the borderlines between Judaism and Christianity, drawing on Christological and eschatological traditions associated with groups scholars today call Jewish-Christian, together with a wealth of Jewish apocryphal lore.” Despite those eastern origins, Sethians strove to present their message in the most sophisticated philosophical language of the day, namely, Platonism.
As I hope I have made clear, I found Burns’s book rewarding and convincing, not to mention amazingly succinct. Personally, I would also be interested in following up more thoroughly on some of the leads he suggests:
*Light From the East?
Burns traces the Sethians eastwards, into Syro-Mesopotamia, and even plays with the idea that the tradition might have had its start in the Syrian city of Apamaea, where Platonic, Elchasaite, Gnostic and Jewish ideas intersected. He definitely links the Sethians to groups from that region, including the Elchasaites, Manichaeans and (even) Mandaeans. That is counter-intuitive, in that so much of the work on Gnosticism is so rooted in Egypt. Eusebius offers a clear tradition from the first century onwards, and he does mention Syria, but only in the context of Antioch, rather than points further east. Most of his emphasis is strongly Egyptian, focused on figures like Basilides, Carpocrates and Valentinus. Most of the great manuscript finds have likewise been in Egypt, and commonly in the Coptic language. Of course, the accident of where a text is discovered says nothing about where it originated, but scholars do tend to stress Alexandria as a crucible of Gnostic thought.
Much modern research on Gnostic origins, though, tells us always to look east and north-east from Palestine, as well as west. The Euphrates and Tigris matter just as much as the Nile.
While stressing those local contexts, though, we should never forget the “globalized” nature of learning and of religious thought in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. People traveled widely, and so did texts and ideas. Plotinus himself was born in Egypt, but had his greatest influence in Rome itself, and it was there he encountered the Sethians. Speaking of people who traveled, Plotinus was a near-contemporary of Mani, who wandered from Mesopotamia through Persia and India
One minor oddity about Burns’s book is that the Essenes scarcely feature (he does make much use of the Dead Sea Scrolls). The book’s whole structure argues for continuity between sectarian Judaism of the last century or so BC into the Syro-Mesopotamian worlds of the first two centuries AD. But surely that continuity extended to people and even organized groups, rather than just texts?
Scholars argue at length about the relationship between the Essenes and the Qumran sect, the “Sons of Light,” but some kind of relationship is virtually certain. We also know that, in the late Second Temple era, Essenes were one of the three main political-religious parties in Palestine, alongside Sadducees and Pharisees. So what happened to the Essenes after the Jewish Revolt? The continuities with those Mesopotamian groups are suggestive, to say the least. As I have written elsewhere, the early Mesopotamian church inherited some obscure Jewish writings otherwise known only from Qumran.
Now, these linkages are not perfect. Sethian literature seems to denounce water baptism, although we are not sure about the nature of their own initiation ritual of Five Seals, and whether that was in fact baptismal in nature. But all the other continuities do suggest that people and ideas linked to Qumran moved decisively eastwards, and the late first century AD would have been the obvious time to do so. Can we speculate about Essene migrations?
On related themes, see John C. Reeves, Heralds of that Good Realm: Syro-Mesopotamian Gnosis and Jewish Traditions (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996).
Briefly, why Seth?
As I have discussed before, the Second Temple period sees a surging interest in Biblical figures as the subjects for apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings, some of which focus on distinctively Jewish subjects like Moses, Isaiah and the Twelve Patriarchs. A very large amount of this literature, though, is firmly based in the pre-Flood period, the age from Adam through Noah, with Adam’s own family as a theme of special interest. Enoch also belongs to this archaic period. The veneration of Seth exactly fits this approach.
Two speculative thoughts occur as to this concentration on earliest antiquity. One is that it looks beyond and before the covenants with Abraham and Moses. Perhaps radical reformers were seeking an entirely reconstructed Judaism, thoroughly purged of the abuses and tyrannies associated with the political/religious elites of the day.
Also, those earlier stories by definition apply to the entire human race, not just to the descendant of Abraham, so that any lessons would apply equally to all human cultures, and all humanity. Such a message would be uniquely appropriate for the kind of globalized world that the Jews faced in the Persian period, but even more so for the Hellenistic and Roman eras. Rather like St. Paul’s interpretations of Jesus, these were attempts to frame the religious message in universal terms. Like Paul’s writings also, they would have a special appeal for Gentiles sympathetic to Judaism.
More on Gnostic origins shortly.